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It’s been a hectic four years for PhD graduate Ruchita Rao Kavle that’s involved lots of impressive numbers.

Those numbers include nine published peer reviewed articles, four book chapters, four conference papers, over 90 hours of outreach, and two appearances on national television.

Graduating in Dunedin this week, and with a personality bubbling with energy, Ruchita’s reflection of her four years at Otago is succinct - “I’ve had an amazing time and experience and loved every minute of it.”

Arriving from India in 2019 to study a postgraduate diploma following her undergraduate degree in biotechnology, Ruchita’s decision to come to Otago was largely based on the available food science options to specialise in. The decision also involved a healthy dose of impulse.

“Otago University and New Zealand looked so beautiful that I just had to come and see it for myself!” Ruchita says.

Upon her arrival, the first question Ruchita was asked by her supervisor, Dr Dominic Agyei, was did she have a fear of insects. Her answer of ‘no’ paved the path for her subsequent research on the nutritional science of edible insects for both the diploma and doctorate thesis.

It was a subject which at the start of her research Ruchita knew nothing about, but she tackled the topic with gusto, making the most of very opportunity. Her prolific research output included 13 papers (with more on the way), several radio interviews and over 90 hours of outreach that earned her a University of Otago science outreach certificate.

The publications and outreach also led to Ruchita’s appearance on New Zealand television screens, firstly on Newshub for her published work on Huhu grubs, and secondly on TVNZ’s Breakfast, when the presenters sampled cricket locust ice cream that was developed in the Food Science labs.

“As I watch the Breakfast show every morning it was completely surreal to suddenly be on it, and especially being live on air for 15 minutes too. It was just as well the presenters liked what they were sampling!”

Dr Agyei is particularly proud of her as his first graduating PhD student in his capacity as primary supervisor.

“Ruchita has an amazing personality, excellent organisation skills, is very teachable, and is a fast learner. She made a significant contribution to establishing the nutrition and health impacts of Huhu grubs as an edible insect,” Dr Agyei says.

“In fact, according to SciVal (Elsevier’s publication and citation bibliometric tool), if you checked all papers published on the topic of ‘edible insects’ in the last five years, Ruchita is the third ranked author in New Zealand and 35th in the Asia Pacific region.

“It has been a pleasure and a fulfilling experience to work with Ruchita and be part of her professional and personal development journey.”

Even for someone as enthusiastic as Ruchita however, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, as her studies during the pandemic meant she hasn’t returned to India since her arrival.

“My parents did visit New Zealand for two short visits during my time here, but they didn’t get to directly experience the highs and lows that come with studying a PhD. So, I waited till they arrived for this graduation visit to ring the bell as a tradition for students who complete their doctorate. I really wanted to share that highlight with them.”

Ruchita’s parents, R.K. and Rajani Rao, say they made sure they were involved where possible, including reading Ruchita’s thesis and asking questions in preparation for her PhD oral defence.

“As teachers ourselves, and despite the distance, we understood the importance of her education, and are now incredibly proud of her remarkable achievements at such a young age as she worked tirelessly to accomplish them independently,” they say.

“Her supervisors have also played a crucial role with unwavering support and assistance, especially during the pandemic. We cannot express enough gratitude towards them and everyone who has been a part of this journey.”

Following graduation, Ruchita will begin a six-month Callaghan Innovation R&D Experience Grant internship with Alliance Group, after which she’ll decide on her next career steps.

“I would like to say a special thanks to Dominic who has always been really supportive, as well as my other supervisors Professor Aladin Bekhit and Associate Professor Alan Carne for giving me so many opportunities,” Ruchita says.

“Studying for a PhD is such a great opportunity to do anything you want to, so I’ve definitely made the most of everything that’s been offered to me during the journey.”

Kōrero by Guy Frederick, Sciences Communications Adviser

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